The power of expectations

Pygmalion priant Vénus d'animer sa statue, Jean-Baptiste Regnault

Pygmalion Praying Venus to Animate His Statue by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1786

The Pygmalion Effect is an interesting piece of research which explores the influence of teacher expectations on student achievement. In the original study, all students in a single California elementary school were given a disguised IQ test, but the scores were not disclosed to teachers. Teachers were told that some of their students (about 20% of the school chosen at random) were expected to be successful academically based on their test scores. The students themselves were not told their scores.

At the end of the study, all students were given the same IQ test. All students had made progress (phew!) but, amongst the younger students in particular, those randomly selected students that teachers had been told were “smart” had made significantly more progress than their peers – even though they weren’t actually any smarter.  This led to the conclusion that teacher expectations, particularly for the youngest children, can influence student achievement.

Rosenthal and Jacobson’s 1968 study has come in for much criticism. Their hypothesis was that the teachers somehow – perhaps unconsciously – treated the “smart” kids differently and had higher expectations of them, which led to their academic progress. This has been hard to replicate or demonstrate. However, a more recent 2014 study by David Yeager, Geoffrey Cohen and colleagues showed the impact that an emphasis on the expectations that we have of all our students could have, when linked to the unconditional positive regard and support that we provide.

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In their study, teachers provided written feedback on student essays in the margins and at the end, with suggestions for improvement. The researchers intercepted the essays and added a post-it note to each one. Half of the essays had a post-it note which read: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” The other half had identical post-it notes with the message: “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.” Neither the students nor their teachers knew that there were different messages on the post-it notes, as the essays were handed back in opaque folders.

The first post-it contains an important message about high expectations, positive regard, and the belief in incremental development that underpins a growth mindset ethos. The second is a carefully-worded neutral message designed to act as a “placebo” in the experiment.

All students were given the opportunity to revise their essays and hand in an improved version the following week. About 40% of students who had received the “placebo” feedback did so, but double that numbers – 80% – of the students who had received the positive regard feedback chose to revise their work.

As with Carol Dweck’s experiments with process praise, thoughtfully adjusting the message teachers communicate has a demonstrable impact on student behaviours and outcomes. This wasn’t about the teachers treating the students differently – the feedback was the same. It was about communicating belief – “I believe in you, I care about you, I know you can do it.”

Walking the talk, practising what we preach, actions speaking louder than words – whatever we call it, if we say we believe in students’ capacity to learn and grow, we have to show that we believe it too. Our every communication needs to be laced with the expectation that students will try, because we care about them and their future.

cover from site

This blog is based on an extract from Becoming a growth mindset school, published by Routledge and available here.

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2 thoughts on “The power of expectations

  1. Pingback: Release your Inner Drive – Summary of a Growth Mindset Conference – Jon Wilkinson | Teaching & learning

  2. Pingback: My book: Becoming a growth mindset school | The Headteacher's Blog

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